Game Design Study: Music Games. Part II

Game Design Study: Music Games. Part II


In the first part of this article, I was talking about foundations of music games. Second part will tell the story of unusual interfaces that were developed over the years – from arcade machines to tons of plastic under your roofs. From drums, guitars and other instruments, to the touch in your smartphones and portable consoles with finally moving your body in front of the TV set.
In most cases, we will only see a slight evolution in mechanics on the software side. The secret lies in the hardware. But is it really just that?

Let’s add some toys to the mix

Dance Dance Revolution (1998 – arcade)

Evolved version of DDR played on set of buttons for two players. Level : Asian.

Beatmania mentioned in the previous part was only the beginning. The music games madness began. Next step lied really in step – Dance Dance Revolution started in 1998 and still is the No. 1 hit in Asian arcade saloons. Up to this day, DDR has over 100 official version on almost all available platforms. The drill is easy – four directional buttons, directions coming from the bottom of the screen (opposing to Beatmania) and crazy dancing routines. How’s that exiting? The main thing is, that we do not play it on the gamepad or with hands at all! We use special dance mat and we have to step onto appropriate buttons.

Samba de Amigo (1999 – Dreamcast)

Samba de Amigo

Game created by Sonic Team with the most original accessory then – a set of maracas. On screen, we have a set of 6 indicators that reflect shaking up, mid and down for both left and right instrument. Markers for a correct behavior were going out from the center of the screen and moving in the direction of one of the six circles. Let’s keep in mind that mechanics – we will see that later on. Game drew attention by having a really cute, colorful outlook and catchy songs to play with. I really recommend checking that out.

Guitar Freaks (1999 – arcade, PSOne and PS2 later on)
DrumMania (1999 – arcade, PS2)
KeyboardMania (2000 – arcade, PS2)

Guitar Freaks

DrumMania v6 arcade machine

Another game from Bemani that proves Konami made some games in the past and they were really great and innovative. This is the first game with a plastic guitar as a controller (that’s right youngsters – Guitar Hero wasn’t the first one). Three buttons and pick lever for strumming with the outlook of Beatmania created quite a hit. What is more – game was quite demanding because we had to strum notes with appropriate accuracy to get the points.
While software side remained very similar, DrumMania interface consisted of five-part percussion set: hi-hat, snare, high tom, low tom and cymbal. What is notable – we could really print out music highway of that game and use it as drum tablature.
Actually, the most complicated form of Bemani games was KeyboardMania – we had to get along with twenty-four-key keyboard. Aside from a lot wider music highway, gameplay remains the same.
We could also link Guitar Freaks with DrumMania and KeyboardMania which was resulting in the first ever created Rock Band type game (sorry kids – team play with plastic instruments also was invented by Bemani). That form was most common in Asian arcade saloons.

Donkey Konga (2003 – GameCube)

Donkey Konga

That is an odd one. With the game we receive a bongo set on which thump the left one, right one, both or clap (thanks to the microphone inside). So still we have 4 actions, music highway this time in horizontal manner, some well-know hits and we’re ready to go. Even if the gameplay is not most original one, bongos make it really enjoyable.

Guitar Hero (2005 – PS2)

Guitar Hero III : Legends of Rock

Made by Harmonix, creators of Amplitude, Guitar Hero is one of the most best-selling music games ever, with tons of iterations and DLCs. The mechanics evolved a bit from Guitar Freaks – we have now 5 lanes on music highway but we are not measured by accuracy – all we have to do is to hold appropriate key and strum the lever in specific time window. Also, instead of falling vertically from the top of the screen, indicators were coming out of the depth of it.
Keen to eye graphics and sort of story in the background were nice add-ons but the best element of GH series is song lineup. It had it’s highs and lows but everybody could find something interesting. Some of the iterations had a few small mechanics added – for example GH III : Legends of Rock had accelerometer in guitar so when we had a possibility to fire up double score mode not only with the button but also by the Slash-style guitar wind up to vertical position. Cute little thing.

Rock Band (2007 – PS2)

Rock Band 2

Another Harmonix game, created after Guitar Hero trademark was given to Neversoft and other developers. It was an evolution of GH idea by adding vocals and drums to the guitar / bass combo. No significant changes in mechanics was compensated by multiplayer mode for 4 players at once. Again, music lineup was really great with additional iterations and DLCs.

All we need is a little touch

When we’re out of the plastic, and we don’t want to sit down in front of a big screen or we’re simply on a trip, portable consoles and smartphones come to the rescue! I won’t talk here about simple Guitar Hero clones or ports of the games that were described before (one notable mention – Rock Band : On Tour for PSP takes the Rock Band interface but the gameplay is more Amplitude-like). The biggest change for music games was a touch interface. At first – there were no difference in core gameplay – we still had some buttons on the screen that were rigged somewhere in the bottom of music highway, but then a new ideas appeared.

Elite Beat Agents (2006 – Nintendo DS)

Elite Beat Agents

A tremendous game made by iNiS, creators of Gitaroo Man. Once again, we get a really great, wacky graphics and a crazy story of government agents that help people through dancing. This is one of the first games where we do not have static buttons or indicators on the screen. What is more – we do not use any physical buttons. Markers for correct behavior dance around the touch screen, their shape and additional elements indicate what kind of action we have to do with our stylus: simply tap the focusing circle or hold and follow the moving marker or spin around till we load up some energy bar. It only looks easy on the surface, because we have less actions. However, with all types of markers dancing around the screen we have to do our best to even hit appropriate marker not to mention to hit it perfectly. If you have DS, you have to play it!

Rhythm Heaven (2008 – Nintendo DS)

Rhythm Heaven – all mini games present in game

At first sight, this game is a hybrid of Wario Ware type game with music. We do not really play any known music tracks here. Instead we have a quite big set of mini games with their own musical compositions and rules – from making robots to guitar lessons. Interface mostly focuses on touch screen (tap, hold, follow) but sometimes uses side buttons (e.g. in guitar lessons we use it to bend the strings). Really fun to play with, especially for quick sessions in the bus or train.

Cytus (2012 – iOS, Android, PS Vita)

Cytus – and this is not the hardest level to beat…

Game created by Rayark, a Taiwan game company developing mostly on mobiles. Aside from great aesthetics and a strange plot, Cytus has over 100 songs (including variations) and quite original gameplay that somehow reminds Elite Beat Agents but adds its own flavor. Here we have multiple indicators in form of circles the suggest appropriate action – tap, hold, follow. Since markers appear with the speed close the light (I mean it – hard mode is really hard here) a black line dances around the screen and to keep our score up, we have to commence specific action exactly when the line meets our marker. Therefore, often we have to press two buttons at once and smudge over the screen at the same time. Music lineup is rather strange and consists of Asian pop – electronic – orchestra – drum ‘n’ bass fusion, but still game is really intoxicating.

Taiko Drum Master (2001 – arcade, 2004 – PS2, 2005 – iOS)

Taiko Drum Master on iOS

Title strictly refers to traditional Japanese instrument – Taiko Drum and tries to reflect its mechanics – hitting the center of the drum, side of it, hit it repeatedly or simultaneously with both mallets. Console version had a drum replica with mallets to play, for mobile version we can use pens. Music line-up is quite good and graphics is very stylish but again, most of the fun lies in unusual device or using touchpad as one.

The all-seeing eye

When we’re tired of playing with plastic toys or tapping touchscreen, another way of having some fun with music is getting up from a couch and start moving your body in front of camera. Everybody knows Dance Central but, in fact, it is not a first music game with camera interface. You will notice here how similar some titles can be from software side to the games mentioned before.

EyeToy : Groove (2003 – PS2)

EyeToy : Groove – one of the few gameplay videos we can find on YouTube

Dancing game from SCE London Studio (we’ll hear more from them later) that used EyeToy Camera to play. Standing in front of it, we had 6 indicators placed around the player (up, mid and down for both hands) and music markers coming from the center of the screen, which is very similar to the Samba de Amigo. We had a few actions that you already heard about: simple touch, drag hand in specified direction and hold the marker for a short period of time. Sounds familiar? Interface was clear and simplistic, track list really satisfying with focus on funk / soul / pop music. Really fun to play or to stand aside and watch someone playing it, just like other games from EyeToy series.

Just Dance (2009 – Wii)

Just Dance 2014 edition multiplayer gameplay

Music game from Ubisoft firstly published on Nintendo Wii, later ported on other platforms started the trend of the dancer on screen making a routine to which at the bottom of the screen pictograms showed the correct poses and actions. Concept was really great but because of Wii controller limitations in precision, notes were poor. Pictures and routine video had a focus on one hand in which we had to hold the controller. Posing and moving it around was rewarded with points depending on precision. Port for PS3 with usage of PSMove solved the problem of movement detection and altogether the tracklist was great as well as actions to commence. Sine it’s a Ubisoft, many iterations were published, despite mediocrity of most of them. After Dance Central success, Kinect version has been developed and tried to compete with Harmonix’s title.

Dance Central (2010 – Xbox 360)

Dance Central 3

Again, our beloved Harmonix created a bestseller. DC is probably the best dancing game so far. Thanks to the Kinect’s precise detection, dancing routines and pictograms used the whole body for giving instructions and rewarding proper actions with points. Keen to eye graphics and marvelous track list as well as many single and multiplayer modes are in stock. A superb party game.

Child Of Eden (2011 – Xbox 360, PS3)

Child of Eden on X360

Amazing title from Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the father of REZ, which will be more closely described in the last part of this article. We travel through space and shoot strangely looking entities that spawn and move to the music, which was created specifically for this game by Mizuguchi’s band. By eliminating enemies (we have three shooting modes to do it) we induce the change of the background music. PS3 version used PSMove to aim and shoot, X360 used Kinect and that interface was more interesting – we used only one hand to aim with shooting circle and then pushed the hand like a Jedi to shoot. Shooting mode switch was commenced by clapping. Simple but brilliant gameplay, very original outlook and great compositions resulted in a big success, especially for Microsoft’s console.

Disney Fantasia : Music Evolved (2014 – Xbox 360, Xbox One)

Disney Fantasia

And our final game of choice made by… Harmonix. Really – 90’s maybe belonged to the Bemani’s creations but the new millenium is totally owned by the big H in terms of music games. Fantasia was created for Kinect and refers to the Disney’s movie of the same title, especially, the part titled “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, in which Mickey Mouse was taking lessons from the wizard name Yen Sid with great synchronized music accompaniment. In this game, we mostly use well-known mechanics from Elite Beat Agents or EyeToy Groove, so taps and waves of many sorts. What is different about this game is that every music piece is divided into sections like vocal, keyboard instruments, drums, etc. (I wonder, what was their inspiration… ?). Then we choose each of this section’s version made by handful of DJs and composers. Doing that we create our own mix to play with. We also choose additional instruments during gameplay to raise our score multiplier. On top of that, game looks really magical and has that exact feeling during gameplay. If you’re open for a music’s wide variety you have to check it out!


We can notice here the evolution of accessories and games’ mechanics developed from well-known ideas to the completely new ones. Especially starting from touch and camera interfaces, where music highway has been disposed of and made place for all-over-screen markers. Going further, at the peak of current dancing games evolution, the marker is player’s whole body which is quite an accomplishment. From the underneath mechanics point of view, we still have pre-designed levels mostly, but some development here is also present – Music Evolved simply as it may be, allows to create our own remix of the music track. Influence of the music on the game’s world and other way around (as in Child Of Eden) is a really interesting topic, and will be described in detail in the future. Next post will refer to the music games with educational values. Why? We will find there some really interesting mechanics that will lead us straight to the final part of my study. Till next time!

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